Missionaries and Culture

Missionaries do their work in a perilous environment. Such has been the rise of ideas such as “multi-culturalism”, that many missionaries now go by a different title: aidworkers, social-workers, educators, or even consultants. Opting for different titles is understandable. In the popular imagination, missionary is increasingly synonymous with colonialist, imperialist, or patronising religious types “forcing” their fundamentalist notions of exclusive paths to God. 

For the missionaries on the ground, the bigger challenge is not how unbelievers perceive their work. The far greater challenge is communicating Christianity to a culture whose worldview, language, customs, art, and social structure has been shaped by religious beliefs different to, and often hostile to, biblical Christianity. 

Those with little experience of this underestimate the size of the task. One might think it is merely a matter of finding correspondent words, symbols and media in the target culture, and simply translating from one culture to another. Sometimes that can be done. 

But here is the real dilemma: what do you do when the target culture has no words for what you need to communicate? What do you do when it has not developed its own writing system to read God’s Word? What do you do when its musical instruments have been used mostly for shamanistic ceremonies or for war-dances? What do you do if the commonly-practiced form of marriage is unbiblical? What do you do if the form of dress is shameful to the human made in God’s image?

According to some contemporary theories, you are not to judge such things. You are there to simply give out the propositional truths of the Gospel. Indeed, some missionaries have been taught the “cellophane-wrapping” view of culture. Culture is nothing more than the wrapping or packaging around the Gospel – meaningless and amoral in itself, simply an instance of varying human preference. Give out the message, and leave the cultural customs alone.

Serious missionaries know better. They know that within every culture there will be instances of God’s common grace: customs that produced social order, delicious meals, folk tales with moral power, social differentiation, special ceremonies, existing poems, songs, crafts, and artworks that can be used to illustrate and communicate biblical truths, and Paul did with the Greeks when quoting Epimenides, Aratus and Menander.

But they also know that cultures shaped by idolatry will have artworks that communicate idolatry, social customs that reinforce idolatry, and language reflective of idolatry. There will be gaping holes in the vocabulary, musical literacy and understanding of the world that need to be filled with Christian truth. There will be existing devices, technologies, and customs that cannot be used by Christians without severe confusion or strain on the conscience, which will need to be eliminated altogether, or transformed until they are no longer recognisable. Here the missionary is not simply co-opting and adapting what he finds; he is actively adding and removing in the name of helping an infant church learn to walk. 

The ability to do this skillfully requires the missionary become expert in two sets of meaning: biblical meaning, and cultural meaning. He must know what Christian truth and affection is, which means he cannot be a novice in the faith. He must then learn the meaning of his host culture, as completely as time allows. He need not become expert in evil (Ro 16:19), but he should be familiar enough with the culture to be able to readily understand the meaning of a certain musical instrument in the target culture, and whether it is consonant with Christian affections. He must continually be comparing Christian meaning with the symbols, devices, tools, customs, technologies, artworks, and media in the target culture. If he is not competent in both systems of meaning, two errors will result. 

One, he may ignore the system of meaning present in the culture, and simply impose the forms of meaning from his home culture. As we said, the missionary needs to do this where the target culture simply lacks the forms or devices to carry the weight of Christian truth. But this error is not simply introducing what is needed, it is ignoring what is present and may helpfully communicate truth. Christianity takes on a more foreign feel than necessary, often becoming a strange outpost of 1950s Americana on another continent. Believe it or not, this is the less serious error. 

Two, and more dangerously, he may uncritically adopt the system of meaning in the culture, believing that Christianity will be far more readily received and embraced if clothed in familiar symbols. His error is not simply that he translates the truth, it is that he does not carefully discern if some cultural forms will distort the message of Christianity once adopted. He avoids the ditch of paternalism, and swerves over into syncretism.

Missionaries need to be well-versed in the meaning of two worlds, and know how to use, adopt, reject, and adapt forms in the target culture, so that Christianity may progressively transform a people from “the empty tradition (anastrophe) received from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:18) into a people with honourable conduct (anastrophe) before the world (1 Pet 2:12). He is, whether he means to or not, a culture-maker and shaper. And who is sufficient for such things?

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